The Mac mini: the best game console in the house

The Mac mini: the best game console in the house

With a little work you can turn your Mac mini into a powerful Windows gaming system. So why not?

I just heard something: A tectonic eruption of eye-rolling from PC gamers. Look, if you've got a custom rig with Nvidia Titan hardware and 4K displays to run Crysis 3 in ridiculous mode, move along. There's nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you already have a Mac mini, or if you've been thinking about getting one but think it's underpowered for gaming, what I have to say may surprise you.

One of my kids wanted to play Windows games that weren't available on the Mac. He can certainly play plenty of games that are out for the Mac, but most stuff still isn't out for the Mac. That's not going to change. Apple accepts that, otherwise they wouldn't provide you with the Boot Camp Assistant utility to begin with.

Our victim is a 2010-era Mac mini. That's the last Mac mini model to sport a built-in SuperDrive. It has Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics. Not as fast as the average gamer GPU card in a custom-built PC, granted. But enough to run a lot of games at acceptable frame rates.

It may surprise you, but the Mac mini is an adept little Windows gaming system. Its graphics speed can't compare to a dedicated gaming rig, but it doesn't have to. Because while it spends some of its time running Windows, it's also a great general purpose Mac running the latest version of Mavericks.

Better at Windows games than Mac games

Whatever Mac mini you use will probably run Windows games faster than it is does Mac games. Windows graphics tend to run faster than OS X graphics do on the same hardware, thanks to more extensive Windows driver optimization and underlying differences in the way the OSes are structured.

It took a few afternoons to get everything squared away. This Mac's been well used since it was new, and its drive partition didn't pass muster with Boot Camp Assistant. Once Drive Utility patched things up I was able to get started.

I used Windows 7, which has broad game support and is available in Home Premium trim for $99 or less from online retailers.

The alternatives

Running Mac games natively and exclusively is always an option. There are a lot of good games on the Mac, games that will run well or decently on the Mac mini. They're available from the Mac App Store, Steam, MacGameStore.com and elsewhere.

If you're looking for a Windows game experience but are reluctant to have to reboot your Mac each time to do it, you can install software that bridges the Windows gap.

VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop get the lion's share of attention, partly because they broad appeal for Mac users who also want to run business software and specialty apps that won't run on OS X natively. Both continue to optimize their releases for the broadest and fastest driver support they can.

CodeWeavers' CrossOver is worth a special look from gamers. It's optimized for games, and unlike the other two or Boot Camp, doesn't require you to have a Windows license.

Putting the pedal to the medal

How well does it actually run, you ask?

A lot of it depends on the individual performance requirements of the game. Obviously some games employ enormously sophisticated 3D engines that want more horsepower than the Mac mini can muster. Many don't, and the relatively modest integrated graphics in the mini are perfectly sufficient to play them.

If you keep your expectations realistic, you can usually tweak settings and resolutions enough to get a really playable experience. For many games, that's frame rates of 20 to 30 frames per second; for others, it's even higher, with higher levels of detail possible.

I've played a combination of FPS, strategy and RPG games on our little Mac mini, and it's held up well. My 14 year old has been pretty happy; he's been dividing his time between various Steam games he couldn't play on the Mac and other fare; a particular favorite is Smite, a multiplayer online battle arena strategy game from Hi-Rez Studios. He also says that old favorites he could play on the Mac, like Valve's own Team Fortress 2, subjectively run better on Windows than on OS X.

The bottom line

I'm never going to ditch my Mac in favor of a Windows PC — I prefer the Mac user experience to the Windows user experience, that's all there is to it. But I can't dispute that there are a lot of fun Windows games to be played, and I'm grateful that Apple's made it easy to equip my Mac as a Windows PC.

As much as I love Sony and Microsoft's game consoles, they're just that — game consoles. The greatest thing about using a Mac for Windows gaming is that you're still using a Mac at the end of the day.

Tune back in tomorrow as I walk you through installing Boot Camp yourself. In the interim, I'm curious to see what you think: Have you set up Windows using Boot Camp Assistant? Are you tempted to?

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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The Mac mini: the best game console in the house

28 Comments

My Wife's mac mini's (2011) fans scream to life as it cries for air when launching safari and surfing the web! Seems the damn thing is about to die just googling something!!

yeah, the mac mini gets pretty noisy. certainly too much for gaming, but that's what headphones are for. ;) The 320m referenced in this article is about the same specs as a PS2. The author could have bought a PS2 with a load of games for about what he spent on Win7 (and not have to worry about malware, etc..).

As for bootcamp, I run it in conjunction with Parallels on my MBP. The games I do play on that Mac are OSX native.

@Peter

In addition to Crossover - There is another WINE project called PlayOnMac. It offers some good performance w/o the cost of a subscription.. I play Dark Age of Camelot with it - runs fine.. It's based on the WINE project just like Crossover, but allows for more 'geeky' tweaking to get your own games running.

With Crossover, you cannot tweak the WINE settings like you can with PlayOnMac.. Trade off is it's not as plug and play.. That said, no support but community based..

I turned to PlayOnMac because the makers of Crossover, CodeWeavers, won't support my game.. :( They tend to drop support after a while.. All I can say, is try the Crossover 'demo' first before paying for a subscription! Maybe try PlayOnMac first...

This has got to be the worst piece of advice and opinion.

Like many others have said. Mac Mini is good for many things BUT gaming.

Why are some of you commenters even here? If you want to try it, do what Peter did and go for it. We'd probably love to see your reviews here. I liked Peter's a lot!
Otherwise HUSH! My ears hurt.

Peter, I know you didn't try it, but how do you think the late 2012 with a USB SuperDrive would do? Ivy Bridge graphics too limited?

Not at all. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the 2010 Mac mini runs Windows games; I have no reason to think that a 2012 wouldn't be even better.

The high end 2011 model actually came with a discrete GPU if I remember correctly. AMD 6*** something. Would probably be your best bet if you wanted to game with a Mac mini.

If you want to play games (or stream media), get a PS3. They're ridiculously cheap and have a huge software library. It will entertain you far more, at least for games and media, than a Mac ever will. Plus with it being a console, you know everything will run perfectly first time. Then there are those Playstation exclusives, the likes of Journey, Metal Gear, The Last of Us, countless JRPGs, and many more.

PC gaming is interesting due to the indie scene and the super cheap pricing on Steam, but as a main gaming system? Not for me.

I prefer PC as a main gaming system. My ps3 and ps4 are alternative gaming systems. Part of the problem is that I feel more comfortable with a keyboard and mouse than a controller. Sure you have 3 directional controllers, 4 triggers, 4 buttons, and now a small touch pad, but that doesn't compare to the keys available on a keyboard. I usually only use F1-F5, 1-6, crtl+1-6, and alt+1-6.

To each their own, but I only buy consoles for the exclusives.

I play a few games on my 27" mid 2011 iMac. The more graphic intensive games I play on the same Mac but on a Windows 7 Boot Camp installation. I too have ditched the consoles as I'm just not wired for the controllers either. I prefer the keyboard and mouse.

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MAC Mini? Well, they do have the added advantage of being more than just gaming. You could turn it into a media server. I currently own a PS4 and love it. I doubt that a MAC Mini would even compete in that realm. Gamers want that punch, that only a console or gaming PC can provide. (Speaking strictly for the Gamers, not your average joe somebody) Gamers love Maxed out performance and higher resolution. The mini just can't do that.

"Gamers" describes a very wide swath of people with very different tastes and requirements. It's a generalization, and like all generalizations, lends itself to inaccuracy.

I said at the outset that if you're very performance-oriented, then this feature isn't for you, but I stand by my assertion that the Mac is a terrific option for a lot of people that aren't driven by those factors — many of whom self-identify as gamers (like me and my teenage sons).

You may be able to run current and old games at passable frame rates on something as under powered as an old Mac Mini now, but the console generation has just changed and we'll soon be getting games which directly target that hardware. Polygon budgets will dramatically increase, memory footprints will quadruple, storage requirements will increase by a factor of 10, and most demanding of all - shader and lighting complexity (which hit the GPU very hard) are set to become vastly more expensive.

Come a year from now, when "new gen" games are commonplace, your old Mac Mini will no longer be able to run new games, even with the detail level set to ultra low. When that happens, just do the sensible, logical, evidence based thing, and buy a PS4.

Mac mini with a 320m wouldn't cut it for me, got the same GPU in my laptop and it's too weak for most games from the last couple of years. Even something old like WoW needs to be run with most settings on low.

That being said, it's fine for more basic games like Torchlight or some of the stuff I've grabbed from various humble bundles. I think that most of the people that disagree with the article would be much more accepting of it with a simple change to the tone. Rather than saying the Mini is the best game console (I know the article gets into more detail as to "why" but the title is what most people focus on) you could say that it makes a fantastic HTPC (could definitely argue the "best") with great casual gaming capabilities.

So the only reason this is "the best gaming console in the house" is "bc it's a Mac"? This makes no sense.

I thought this article would reveal some secret extra-graphics turbo chip to install that unleashed unseen power. Nope.

I have a MacPro from 2006. It used to be the only source of electronic entertainment in my apartment. TV, movies and games. I used bootcamp, I even bought a $100 NVIDIA 8800GT for $300 bc it said Apple on it. It was still a shit game console. (In 2009 I came to my senses & got a PS3). And that MacPro is more powerful the the very same Mac mini described in this article.

I knew this was a Mac worshiping site, but this is just delusional.

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I usually like Peter's articles but it seems the only requirement he has is that it can run OS X.

OS X is getting better in terms of games coming out, but the reality is that any serious gamer should probably also have a PC or at least one console. Even a PS3 or Xbox 360 is still way better for gaming than the average Mac (By this, I'm referring to anything that does not have a discrete GPU) at a fraction of the cost.

If a Mac Mini from 2010 satisfies your gaming needs, good for you, but you're most certainly in the minority there.

Is "Putting the petal to the medal" some kind of joke that I just don't get, or is it supposed to say "Putting the pedal to the metal"? Because I don't understand how putting flower petals on some medals you've won for something makes much sense here.

This has literally the worst video card for gaming. I am a mac gamer and I wouldn't buy a Mac mini. I would buy one if it had better graphics. Would be awesome for traveling. Most hotels have a tv with hdmi so I could just hook it up right in the room. They need to redesign the Mac mini along the lines of the Mac Pro. Just smaller. With an Integrated large heatsink so that it would be great for gaming.

Dear Lord, everyone jumped on the "Peter's crazy!" bandwagon. Seriously, I've never owned a Mac mini but my 2011 MacBook Pro worked fine and so does my late 2013. I have to believe a Mac mini with decent hardware would do ok. My only complaint was running STO through Parallels had weird mouse issues but a native client has the problem solved. :)

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The Mac Mini might work fine for you but it is far from a gaming computer or console. Sure it can play old games but so can most computers made in the last several years. A Mac Mini would be far from a good computer for gaming if you plan on playing just about any game from the last 4 or so years. Minecraft, WOW, Battlefield, COD or many other games that aren't even that intensive run like crap on hardware like that. You're entitled to your opinion but I hope people don't read this article and get the idea that you can actually run most games with that hardware.